How Tony Benn helped shape British stamps


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14 March 2014
imports_CCGB_proposedstampdesignfro_77128.png Proposed stamp design from the 'Gentleman Album', courtesy BPMA
Whatever, you may think of his politics and beliefs, the late Tony Benn had a lasting effect on British stamps, writes Matt Hill, as he looks back on a memorable Stamp & Coin Mart interview with the former Postmaster General ...
A flood of tributes followed the recent announcement of the passing of Tony Benn, colleagues looked back on the highlights of a remarkable life, while those of us who heard the politician and campaigner speak recalled memorable quotes and the man’s forthright, avuncular manner.

Those of us with an interest in stamps also recalled Benn’s time as Postmaster General during which he made some controversial suggestions  for a new British stamp design and expanded the postcode system, first tested in Norwich, to the entire country.

Two years ago I had the pleasure of interviewing Benn about his time as Postmaster General for a special feature in Stamp & Coin Mart.

The article examined the renowned ‘Gentleman Album’, a collection of proposed stamp designs that dared to imagine a time when the monarch’s head would not be featured on our stamps, named after pioneering stamp designer David Gentleman, who I also interviewed for the piece.

Benn was a pleasure to interview, with an obvious experience of dealing with the media and providing an interesting and original angle. We discussed the idea of removing the Queen’s head from British stamps, first suggested by designer Gentleman who saw the inclusion of the then Wilding portrait as restrictive, and excitedly pursued by Benn, who has never hidden his republican views.

Benn told me about the historic meeting he had with the Queen as he showed her the proposed designs, and which he also recounts in his diaries. ‘I then knelt on the floor and one after the other passed up to the Queen the Battle of Britain stamps bearing the words “Great Britain” and no royal head on them,’ he recalled. ‘It was a most hilarious scene because I had my papers all over the place and she was peering at something that had obviously never been shown to her.’

Of course, the idea was never adopted. A statement from the Palace read: ‘She hopes that you – like [herself] – will keep an open mind as to whether her effigy should invariably appear on commemorative and pictorial stamps, in accordance with tradition.’

Yet the work of Benn and Gentleman still changed British stamps forever.

The Wilding portrait previously incorporated into pictorial designs was soon replaced with the small cameo silhouette we still see in the corner of our stamps today, leaving room to, in Benn’s words, ‘commemorate appropriate anniversaries and occasions, to reflect Britain’s unique contribution to the arts and world affairs, to extend public patronage of the arts by promoting philately and to raise revenue.’

Benn showed no signs of slowing down after his lively career in politics had come to end, travelling around the country to speak and campaign for what he believed in, and sharing his thoughts on society and life in Britain. Thanks to this enduring enthusiasm in older age we were able to feature his recollections in Stamp & Coin Mart, as he excitedly looked back on his brief but eventful time as Postmaster General, and what an honour to experience this man's obvious passion.

Read more about stamps and stamp collecting in every issue of Stamp & Coin Mart magazine.
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